Last week, the scientific world lost Katherine Johnson, who had one of the most fascinating stories in recent memory. As a “human computer” in NASA’s early years, she calculated flight paths of many space missions by hand, including the orbital flight of John Glenn. After being briefed on the details of his mission, he specifically asked for Johnson to double-check the electronic calculations. She was a hidden figure: someone who broke barriers and was absolutely integral to many monumental accomplishments, but who never really saw any of the spotlight. John Glenn gets all the love for being the first person to orbit the Earth, but until recently, not many had heard of the human computers like Johnson that made it possible.

This got me thinking, are there more examples of this throughout the history of science? When people’s names get permanently affixed to laws, discoveries, and firsts, did they really earn it? How many other hidden figures are there?

Answer: a whole heck of a lot. So much so that the phenomenon has earned its own name: Stigler’s law of eponymy. Noted by University of Chicago statistics professor Stephen Stigler in 1980, the law states that basically no scientific discovery gets named after its original discoverer. There are dozens of instances – laws, equations, and devices – in math, physics, even ecology that are known to be named after someone who didn’t first observe or invent them. Here’s a fun exercise: think of something in science that’s named after a person. Got it? Now check out this list of examples. Venn diagrams? They’re named after English mathematician John Venn who used them in the 1880s, but the overlapping circles were first used by Leonhard Euler more than 100 years earlier! Don’t feel bad for Euler, though, because you know his number, e  = 2.718… ? Jacob Bernoulli discovered it in 1638, 70 years before Euler was even born. The list goes on and on. 

Stigler’s Law is like the game telephone, except with science and it takes decades!

While many of the entries on that list are simply squabbles of priority and popularity, there’s a more serious side to some of them. Patterns of misnaming and miscrediting ring painfully true for many women in science, like Lise Meitner and Rosalind Franklin. These women and many others made crucial discoveries in physics and chemistry, but their credit was taken by (and is still sometimes given to) their male colleagues; this is a version of Stigler’s law called the Matilda effect. We are thus presented with an interesting tension between tradition and giving credit where it’s actually due. There are arguments to be made either way, one saying ‘It doesn’t really matter what we call it, we just know it’s a thing,’ but another that says ‘Words and representation do matter, and they impact attitudes in science today.’ 

But before you give Stephen Stigler too much credit or blame, he ensured that his law wasn’t safe from its own clutches by naming it how he did. In a rare but amusing case of a rule following itself, it was actually a sociologist named Robert Merton who made this observation some time before Stigler did!

Peer edited by Gabrielle Dardis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *